Flooding Forces 150 Out Of Homes -- Skagit County Farmland Awash When Dike Breaks On Fir Island

CONWAY, Skagit County - David and Amanda Jones didn't think twice after hearing that floodwaters had broken through a dike a few miles from their home yesterday afternoon.

``I grabbed some clothes,'' said David. ``And I grabbed the baby pictures,'' Amanda added.

The young couple and their 2-year-old son, Cody, were among at least 150 people homeless today after being evacuated from Fir Island, an agricultural community south of Mount Vernon.

About 40 people, including the Joneses, spent the night in a Red Cross shelter set up at Conway Elementary School, east of Fir Island.

If needed, Mount Vernon High School will be used tonight as an overflow shelter. However, most residents evacuated from the island are staying with friends or in nearby motels.

About 70 percent of Fir Island was covered in water last night, said Dave Brookings, Skagit County assistant flood-control engineer.

``This is all just flat farmland,'' he said. ``After it gets over the levees, that water just keeps spreading.''

Volunteers and National Guard troops filled sandbags to shore up shaky dikes near Conway to prevent the displacement of another 500 to 600 people, Brookings said.

``It looks like we've got it under control,'' Brookings said. ``But it depends on what the river does. It will likely be a couple days before people can go home again.''

The Skagit County sheriff's office was not releasing information on conditions there early today.

The drama on Fir Island was going on while most other people living along Western Washington's swollen rivers were drying out under yesterday's unseasonably warm weather.

Much of the effort in Skagit County over the weekend was devoted to saving downtown Mount Vernon from the rising river. Three to four feet of sandbags were piled atop a 34-foot revetment protecting the downtown area, Brookings said.

The river finally crested yesterday at about 35.2 feet, 7.2 feet above flood stage. It was down to 34 feet last night, still more than twice the 16-feet height the river would be on an average autumn day, Brookings said.

Since late Saturday night, however, engineers had been watching dikes downstream on Fir Island, where the Skagit divides into a north fork and south fork before emptying into Skagit Bay.

``We could see (Saturday night) that the situation was getting serious. The dikes were becoming saturated,'' Brookings said.

Emergency officials fanned out over the island early yesterday morning to warn residents of the danger. Many of the residents decided to leave.

Others, such as Robert Miniati, lingered. Miniati said he'd been filling sandbags until about 3:30 a.m. yesterday.

``At about 1 (p.m.) I saw all these trucks going by and wondered what was going on,'' he said. ``Then my neighbor came by and told me the (dike) had just blown and to get the hell out of there.''

Brookings said the break in the dike started slowly, but couldn't be stopped.

``It was only about 20 feet at first, but now she's just peeling right away,'' he said.

Once the island residents were safe, rescuers turned their attention to cattle stranded by the flood waters.

After an appeal for trucks and trailers was broadcasted over a local radio station, the bridge across Fir Island was jammed with mooing cattle being shuttled to higher ground. ``It's the great cattle evacuation of Fir Island,'' said a sheriff's deputy directing traffic across the bridge.

About 500 volunteers from all over Skagit County helped in the evacuation and flood-control effort, said Wayne Beath, of the Conway Fire Department.

``That's the way it is here,'' said Beath said. ``When there's trouble, people help people.''

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.